BC Finally Starting Tough Conversations about Gender and Sexuality in Schools
For the past seven years, no political party in BC was willing speak against sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) or the propriety of certain sexual education material in public schools. In 2016, the BC United government (formerly the BC Liberals) introduced SOGI 123 into the education system. This was heartily supported by the NDP, the official opposition at the time.
Public school boards began adopting SOGI policies and embedding the concepts of sexual orientation and gender identity into classroom teaching. SOGI supporters and media reports claim that SOGI 123 isn’t a curriculum. They are right. There is no designated course or segment of a course where sexual orientation and gender identity makes a stand-alone appearance. It’s far worse. The topics are woven throughout every subject and every grade.
Earlier this week, however, a BC MLA finally voiced substantive criticism to SOGI in public in the legislature. John Rustad, the new leader of the BC Conservatives, used his very first question of the new legislature to call on the government to remove SOGI 123 from schools.
Here is a video and a transcript of his exchange with Premier David Eby and Rachna Singh, Minister of Education and Child Care.
J. Rustad: Thousands of British Columbians, many of them from minority communities, have been protesting against SOGI 123, which was originally introduced by the B.C. United Liberals. Parents are concerned about the sexualization of their children in this NDP government’s education system. Will the minister admit that SOGI 123 has been divisive, an assault on parents’ rights and a distraction on student education?
Hon. D. Eby: I welcome the member to the House as the leader of his new party, but I have got to say, this is not an auspicious start.
You know, when you talk about the issues of the day for British Columbians — cost of living, housing, we heard from the BCUP, health care, addiction, mental health — to come into this place, to use the authority of his office, his new party, to find a small group of kids in our province, to leverage all of that, to make them feel less safe at school, less safe in our community, to feed the fires of division in our province and bring culture war to British Columbia. It is not welcome.
When he sat on this side of the House, he supported those same policies. It is outrageous that he would stand here and do this. He sees political advantage in picking on kids and families and teachers and schools who are just trying to do their best for kids who are at risk of suicide. Shame on him. Choose another question.
*** Premier Eby’s response garnered a standing ovation from the entire BC NDP caucus, the entire BC Green caucus, and almost all of the BC United caucus***
J. Rustad: It is very clear that we’re talking about a uni-party in this House, and that’s fine in terms of it. But to the Premier, what I find most offensive is that the division is being created by what this government is implementing. There are thousands of people taking to the streets, there are thousands of people protesting at school board offices. There are kids that are being part of this because they are disturbed at what’s happening in their schools.
This isn’t about attacking a particular group of people. This is about having a policy that is inclusive, that is anti-bullying, that is supportive, so everybody feels safe. But right now we have kids that are running home from school and going to the bathroom because they don’t feel safe in school, and that is this government’s fault in terms of it.
In my riding, just recently with the protests that happened last week, two young Indigenous girls were suspended from school for participating in a protest. Now, whether or not that action was appropriate, I can’t tell you. The mother of those two Indigenous girls is outraged at the fact that those kids are now being excluded from education. This is not what we want to be able to see.
We need to be able to see an education system, quite frankly that is accepting of everybody. So, the question, once again, to the minister or to the Premier, if he cares to take it — will the minister, actually, look at this, look at the divisions that this is creating, look at the divisions that SOGI 123 is creating, and replace it with a less divisive approach to anti-bullying in our schools?
Hon. R. Singh: I’m so saddened that the member opposite is talking about this. Here we are trying to create inclusive safe spaces for our children, where every child belongs, and the member is the one who’s trying to create these divisions.
We are committed to provide those safe and welcoming spaces. We want to make sure that every child feels included, and they feel they can be themselves in the schools, and that’s what we are committed to.
BC’s Premier and Minister of Education wish MLAs would stay silent on this issue. It is clear they are resistant to re-examining SOGI.
But New Brunswick and Saskatchewan have already taken steps to ensure that parents are notified if or when their children change their gender identity in schools. Ontario has also signaled interest in taking action on this front. The grassroots members of the federal Conservative party also voted in favour of policies that would ban medical transitioning for minors and preserve women’s-only spaces. This conversation is picking up steam across the country.
We’re thankful that it is being raised in BC too.
But that’s not the end of the story.
The next day, as his first question, BC Conservative’s second MLA, Bruce Banman, highlighted some of the disturbing materials in public school libraries. (We have edited out the most explicit language, but the full wording was recorded in the legislative Hansard.) Here’s that exchange:
B. Banman: I stand here today as a distraught father and grandfather. I stand here with parents in Abbotsford who are deeply concerned about sexually graphic and explicit content available in certain fictional books within our public school libraries to children as young as 11 years of age.
I would ask that the House brace themselves for the following words from one such book, called Eleanor & Park: “I know you’re a slut. You smell like ***. Nothing but a ***** in heat.”
Mr. Speaker: Member. Please do not use that kind of language.
B. Banman: I apologize, Mr. Speaker, and I actually would retract those words.
This language is deeply disturbing. As a grandfather, it shakes me to the core when I imagine that children could be exposed to this deeply disturbing, degrading language in British Columbia public school libraries.
Will this NDP Premier please answer to concerned parents, grandparents and families in Abbotsford and throughout this province: why is the sexually explicit book, Eleanor & Park, and others like it, available in British Columbia public schools for children as young as 11 years of age?
Hon. R. Singh: I just want to say, not just as a Minister of Education but also as a parent, that our schools are places we want to make…. They are spaces which are safe, inclusive and welcoming for all students. The teachers are using resources that are age appropriate, audience appropriate to give those values, give those teachings that are so important to create those welcoming environments.
I just want to reiterate that the resources that teachers are imparting, that teachers are teaching, are age appropriate, and they are audience appropriate.
B. Banman: I’m asking as a parent, as a grandparent, to the Premier and to the minister: if the words I just read were inappropriate and unacceptable and clearly disturbing to this House, how is it that those same words are appropriate to be read by a sixth grader as young as 11 years old in our public system? How are those words safe and inclusive?
Hon. R. Singh: I cannot comment on the particular books that the member is mentioning.
But I can talk as a parent whose children are going to the public school system, who have gone through the public school system and I have never encountered anything inappropriate being taught to my children.
I take such pride in our public education system. I am so proud of the teachers who are working every day. I, in fact, raise my hands to all the work that is happening in our schools.
Our schools are very diverse places. As leaders, as school leaders, it is our responsibility that we respect that diversity, and we are making our schools as safe as possible.
Either the provincial ministry of education and local school boards are unaware of what types of books are in their libraries or they approve of such sexually explicit books being presented to grade schoolers. Regardless of their intent, the books are there.
Take a moment to send a note to your MLA, asking for them to engage in these much-needed conversations about what is appropriate for children in schools rather than ignoring it and calling on their opposition members to “ask another question.”